Women lead Sudan protests that inspire new ‘Arab spring’ comparison

U.K., U.S. and Norway urge transition after months of protests culminate in deaths at hands of security forces.

By
April 10, 2019 15:38
2 minute read.
Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans during a protest demanding Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir

Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans during a protest demanding Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir to step down in Khartoum, Sudan April 6, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

A young woman dancing and chanting to a crowd has captivated Sudanese protesters and people across the Middle East. She was protesting against the Sudanese government of Omar al-Bashir, who has been in power since 1993. Some think that the demonstrations are part of a new wave of "Arab Spring" protests illustrating the demand for change across the Middle East.

The woman’s name was reported as Ala’a Salah and a viral photo was taken by Lana Haroun. It shows Salah gesturing to the crowd. Dozens of people filmed her, and other video has emerged of her speaking to the crowd and chanting. Locals say that women are playing a key role in the protests. Protests in Sudan appeal to many sectors of society and the government has been cracking down. The protesters are now holding a sit-in and picketing the army headquarters.

But it is Salah who is being welcomed as the inspirational face of this protest. Remember her name, say social media commentators. The protests have gone on for weeks now, but appear to be gaining momentum. The wider question is what ramifications the Sudanese protests will have.

Sudan, a close ally of Turkey, also receives support from countries such as Qatar. Bashir was welcomed in Turkey in December 2017 and that month, Sudan agreed to lease an island to Turkey. A high-level Turkish delegation arrived in the country in 2018. Despite the protests, Turkey received the ambassador of Sudan on April 9 with promises of further cooperation. At the same time, a member of Turkey’s ruling party said that Ankara supported “stability and a reform process” in Sudan and showed “solidarity with Sudanese people.” 

Al-Jazeera, which used to be supportive of Arab Spring protests, has had no op-ed articles on the Sudan protests in recent weeks but had seven op-eds on Israel and three on Ethiopia. It appears that Al-Jazeera in Qatar has chosen not to highlight the protests, showing the Qatar-Turkey consensus on opposing protests in Sudan.

This shows the cleavages in the Middle East that have developed since the Arab Spring protests eight years ago. Today, Turkey and Qatar are closer to Sudan’s Bashir, at least in part because of his Muslim Brotherhood background which links Qatar-Turkey foreign policy in support of Hamas and other groups. Others in the region take inspiration from the protests, remembering those days of 2011 when many believed that change could come. Similarly the protests in Sudan have been linked to massive protests in Algeria that saw the long-time leader pushed from office.

However, there is little taste for a re-run of the Arab Spring protests in other states, and strongman leaders have cracked down on dissent. Sudan and Algeria are both sufficiently on the periphery that, while they may inspire, they do not threaten the status quo across the Middle East.

Bashir, however, must be careful how he handles these protests. Too much violence will bring the spotlight. He wants to manage the protesters, the way the Maduro regime in Venezuela has managed theirs. This is the new model for confronting protests: no mass killing that could spark an uprising. Instead, regimes hope that they can outlast them. So far, Sudan’s regime has outlasted the protests, even if an inspiring young woman has become their symbol. The UK, Norway and US have urged a transition plan for Sudan. It is unclear, however, whether the US, UK and Norway have much sway.


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